When Monday Night Raw emanated from Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2020, the idea that it would be the last WWE show in an arena with fans for 494 days wasn't remotely on anybody's mind.
With the exception of two nights of WrestleMania 37 action held at an outdoor football stadium, the only fan interaction that the stars of Raw and SmackDown have had since has come via virtual screens inside the WWE Thunderdome, which was put into place in August 2020 and moved around the state of Florida.
But finally, on Friday night's edition of SmackDown at Toyota Center in Houston, WWE fans returned back to the building. SmackDown kicked off a weekend of shows that marks WWE's full-time return to the road that peaks on Sunday, with the Money in the Bank pay-per-view at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sunday's card is sure to shape the trajectory of both Raw and SmackDown for the rest of 2021, especially with August's SummerSlam supershow on the horizon, and the opportunity is high for several new stars to break out.
Universal championship: Roman Reigns (c) vs. Edge
Edge and Roman Reigns were on a collision course for a clash of epic proportions at WrestleMania 37. Edge was riding high after winning the Royal Rumble, and Reigns was on an unbelievable upward trajectory as he got more and more locked in as Universal champion and the WWE's most unbeatable villain. But a funny thing happened along the way -- Daniel Bryan made just a little too much noise and became a natural fit standing in the middle of their story. A triple threat match was born.
The match itself was one of the highlights of WrestleMania weekend, with chaotic energy and the kind of uncertainty about the result that's been somewhat lacking in Reigns' title defenses of late. That Reigns has been able to stay red hot despite the somewhat predictable nature of his rivalries is all the more impressive. But at the moment in that match where his Universal championship seemed most at peril, Reigns stacked up both of his challengers and defiantly left Tampa with his title intact.
Edge disappeared from WWE TV, and Bryan made his final push towards the title alone, and was then sent packing himself. Cesaro made a frustratingly brief step into the spotlight, only to similarly fall short, and then Edge made his triumphant return, ready to get his one-on-one opportunity.
The energy and animosity has crackled in the air inside of the WWE Thunderdome, and the injection of a full live audience will likely set a match to the fuse of this powder keg on Friday's go-home SmackDown. By the time they square off at Money in the Bank on Sunday, anticipation for an absolute classic will be sky-high.
How it's most likely to play out: Reigns gets by with the narrowest of margins, thanks to The Usos getting involved in their cousins' business yet again.
Looking ahead to SummerSlam: If Edge ends Reigns' run with the title at 320 days, it would build up to an even bigger rematch at SummerSlam. A loss would leave Edge without a clear dance partner, but his recent interaction with Seth Rollins could be laying the breadcrumbs to a big showcase match. If Reigns wins, the Money in the Bank winner could immediately come into play, but a match against a returning legend -- perhaps one with a major DC comics movie releasing in August -- would be a suitably major opportunity for WWE's biggest star of the moment.
Raw women's championship: Rhea Ripley (c) vs. Charlotte Flair
The theme of this rivalry seems to be, "Anything you can do, I can do better." The conflict between Rhea Ripley and Charlotte Flair dates back a year and a half, to when Flair won the 2020 Royal Rumble and challenged Ripley, then the NXT women's champion. Flair won that match, and hung around NXT for a few months, participating in a handful of follow-up matches.
But things got more heated after Ripley won the Raw women's championship from Asuka at WrestleMania 37. Ripley and Flair met at WrestleMania Backlash, and Flair's win by DQ worked to further elevate tensions. Ripley has started to channel her inner Flair by discovering new and creative ways to steal victories -- new to her, of course, but not to Flair.
A turn towards her darker tendencies has set up an interesting clash at Money in the Bank, between two women ostensibly fighting to prove who the bigger and better villain is. Flair has long proven herself to be a standout baddie, elevating the hero of the moment and making them feel more important with her presence and performance. But this is a different job entirely, as she drags Ripley into deeper and darker waters. While the evolution has been a bit choppy at times, Ripley has shown flashes back to her time as NXT U.K. women's champion and her ability to be the villain, which should suit her well as she works to get her legs more firmly underneath her on the main roster.
How it's most likely to play out: Ripley impresses Flair with her ability to cut corners and squeaks out a successful title defense. Perhaps, as two villains, their similarities could lead to a partnership down the line.
Looking ahead to SummerSlam: If Flair wins, Ripley is unlikely to go away any time soon. It could come down to who fills the final women's Money in the Bank slot. While there's a chance of a same-night cash-in, the women's Money in the Bank briefcase could be used to instead build some tension in the long-term. If that's the case, we could see a multi-way match featuring Flair, Asuka and any number of other potential contenders.
WWE championship: Bobby Lashley (c) vs. Kofi Kingston
Bobby Lashley was arguably the biggest winner of all at WrestleMania 37. Most had Drew McIntyre penciled in to win, but Lashley won a definitive victory over McIntyre, and then continued to persevere through each and every challenge.
The sudden dissolution of The Hurt Business was a head-scratcher at best, but it did feed into the story that's driven Lashley into his current moment of doubt. MVP, who was a key figure in getting Lashley to the top as WWE champion, had now surrounded Lashley with all of the comforts of success, which led to diminishing performances in the ring.
First it was a tag team loss to Kingston and Xavier Woods. Then, in the final Monday Night Raw leading up to Money in the Bank, Lashley lost to Woods clean in a non-title match. It led Lashley to do some soul-searching, and then he tore up the MVP Lounge and pledged to shed all of the distractions that had been dragging him down.
Kingston has played the perpetual underdog for the majority of his WWE career, and has served as the perfect foil for Lashley's mental journey.
How it's most likely to play out: Given how the WWE has presented Kingston since he lost the WWE championship to Brock Lesnar, it's hard to imagine him having even the slightest chance of walking out of Texas as a two-time WWE champion. Lashley gets pushed, briefly, but clears his head and marches on.
Looking ahead to SummerSlam: WWE wants to make a big splash as live crowds return. One look at the men's Money in the Bank ladder match lineup shows at least five potential winners who could turn around and instantly cash in on Lashley, including a long-time rival hoping to return to the title conversation in a flash. Putting McIntyre right back on top feels like a mistake, but that doesn't mean it won't happen. Ideally, Lashley would get something fresh to sink his teeth into -- and there's a potential winner of the men's Money in the Bank ladder match who would be a very interesting dovetail into his current conflict.
Men's Money in the Bank ladder match: Big E vs. Drew McIntyre vs. John Morrison vs. Kevin Owens vs. Matt Riddle vs. Ricochet vs. Seth Rollins vs. Shinsuke Nakamura
The men's Money in the Bank match is as level a field as we've seen in recent years, making this one of the most unpredictable dynamics we've seen at this PPV. Drew McIntyre is the only one of the bunch who's been directly in a world title picture of late, and any of the eight could be reasonably plugged into a variety of stories on either Raw or SmackDown
Former MITB winners: 1 (Seth Rollins)
Former world champions: 3 (McIntyre, Rollins, Kevin Owens)
How it's likely to play out: McIntyre represents the only boring, uncreative option among the bunch. He has carried an unbelievable amount of weight during the WWE's pandemic era, and he would do well to take a breather outside the world title picture that he's occupied for more than 18 months. His recent spat with Jinder Mahal thankfully points towards such a shift.
The other former world champions in the bunch make interesting cases. Rollins has been nibbling around the edges of a renewal of tensions with Reigns, but after his face-to-face moment backstage with Edge on Friday, it seems like he'll be taking the long way around. Owens made a point during a moment on the commentary desk Friday that he hasn't really been a serious title contender since 2017, and with his rivalry against Sami Zayn seemingly settled, he could reasonably carve a direct path towards either champion or sit on the briefcase and bide his time. But at the moment, it doesn't seem like WWE views Owens in that light.
Matt Riddle briefly got involved in John Morrison and Ricochet's falls count anywhere match on Monday, and it's probably fair for these three to be connected. Riddle might have the slightest of chances as an outside the box pick, but these three all feel a long way from true world title contention. That doesn't mean you should take your eyes off any of these three during the match itself, because they will certainly have the most eye-popping moments among the bunch.
That leaves the two most compelling candidates of all. Shinsuke Nakamura has regained his crown and his swagger over the last month, at the direct expense of Baron Corbin. Nakamura had a brief flirtation with a conflict with Reigns, and he'd be a fresh face for Reigns to clash with among the current roster of talent. His entrance with Rick Boogs shredding on electric guitar will be incredible, at the very least.
Then there's Big E. He's never had a world title match, but he's seemingly been on the precipice of such elevation for a long time. This feels like it could be a now-or-never moment, in terms of moving towards giving Big E a chance to be a superstar. He has a seemingly unending supply of charisma and a firm grasp of how to squeeze the most out of every moment. Big E also slots in well against either current champion, or as a long-term carrier of the MITB briefcase.
Final prediction: Big E gets his breakthrough moment. The world is his oyster, and the possibilities are vast.
Women's Money in the Bank ladder match: Alexa Bliss vs. Asuka vs. Liv Morgan vs. Naomi vs. Natalya vs. Nikki Cross vs. Zelina Vega vs. Tamina
SmackDown has been on a clear roll, including some great matches in its women's division, but depth issues have limited who could be included in this match. Nikki Cross has been winning big matches in recent weeks, but beyond Ripley vs. Flair, the only significant story in the Raw women's division has been Alexa Bliss' perpetual spookiness.
A wrinkle was thrown into this match with the injury to Bayley, as Carmella was replaced by Liv Morgan and placed directly into a title shot against Bianca Belair, which took place on Friday, rather than Sunday. Belair pinned Carmella clean to retain the title.
Here's how the field breaks down:
Former MITB winners: 2 (Alexa Bliss, Asuka)
Former world champions: 4 (Asuka, Bliss, Naomi, Natalya)
How it's likely to play out: Tamina was hastily announced as the final participant in the match on Thursday evening, as rumors of a returning star began to bubble to the surface on social media. Although nothing changed on Friday's edition of SmackDown, WWE has a history of last-minute changes -- remember Lesnar's shock return at Money in the Bank 2019? Let's work on the presumption that this lineup is more fluid than it appears
Sasha Banks, who has been off of TV since WrestleMania, could easily claim a spot with a dramatic return on Sunday. She would be an instant favorite, especially considering some unfinished business with Belair.
One of three newcomers to the SmackDown women's roster -- Tegan Nox, Shotzi and Toni Storm -- could also step in. In that case, one of them could come through with a shock win. Morgan and Cross have also been lined up for a win in recent weeks on SmackDown and Raw, respectively. But the likeliest winner in this scenario is Bliss, followed by Asuka.
Finally, there's an outside the box possibility, given WWE's likely desire to make a big splash with the return of live crowds: Becky Lynch. Lynch and Rollins welcomed a child in December 2020, and the drumbeat for Lynch's return will only grow louder until it finally happens.
Final prediction: Banks returns, claims the final spot and takes down the briefcase. If the match stands as is, Bliss becomes a two-time Money in the Bank winner.
Raw tag team championships: AJ Styles & Omos (c) vs. The Viking Raiders
Beyond the absolutely stunning outcomes of one-on-one matches between AJ Styles and Ivar, and Omos and Erik (both won by the Viking Raiders), this appears to be a very standard tag team title defense.
After winning a tag team battle royal on Raw over a month ago, they were seemingly set up as future challengers. Now they'll get their chance.
How it's most likely to play out: My heart hopes the Viking Raiders can become a cornerstone for a new surge in the tag team division by winning on Sunday. That would also free Styles to pursue some true dream matches, and stop wasting significant stretches of his prime standing mostly idle. My head says WWE isn't nearly done pushing this unusual tag team as champions, and Styles and Omos will likely retain.
Looking ahead to SummerSlam: The WWE has a hard time focusing on more than one story in the tag team division at once, so it's anyone's guess what happens next.
SmackDown tag team championships: Rey Mysterio & Dominik Mysterio (c) vs. The Usos (Kickoff show)
After a series of attacks, as well as a wildly entertaining Hell in a Cell match for the Universal on SmackDown between , the Mysterios returned just over a week ago to back up Edge in a 3-on-1 scenario opposite Reigns and The Usos.
These two teams squared off twice in one night back in June, with one match ending in controversy with Jimmy Uso's shoulder off the mat and the other ending by DQ when Reigns inserted himself in the proceedings later in the night.
Now we finally get the rematch.
How it's most likely to play out: With The Usos and Reigns winning on the final SmackDown leading into Money in the Bank, history would indicate a successful title defense for the Mysterios. And since winning these tag titles two months ago, The Usos are the only team The Mysterios have defended against. But with Reigns in power, the only way to make him even stronger would be to give his family even more power in the form of more titles. The Usos win, and things appear to peak for the family.
Looking ahead to SummerSlam: As has happened far too often with all three main roster tag team titles, they largely become a prop in the story of one of the major singles titles. Any title defenses between now at SummerSlam are an afterthought.